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WORLD AIDS DAY: HIV/AIDS Threat Unites Religions in India

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Dec 1 2004 (IPS) - Fear of a rapidly spreading HIV/AIDS epidemic in India has resulted in a rare coming together of the country’s several religious faiths that are known to have a tremendous influence on their respective flocks.

Much of the credit for the new initiative must go to Bishop Pradeep Samantaroy, chairperson of the Synodical Board of Health Services of the Church of North India (CNI) who, on World AIDS day called upon religious leaders in the country to ”take forward the government’s initiative in combating HIV/AIDS and ensure that no one falls prey to this fatal disease.”

The Bishop told IPS on Wednesday that he was ”overwhelmed” by the response he got to his call from important leaders of the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and other faiths.

Among the Bishop’s more enthusiastic respondents was Shahi Imam (Imperial Cleric) of the famous Fatehpuri Masjid (mosque) in the old quarter of the national capital and Mufti Mukaram Ahmed who said he fully understood that HIV/AIDS was now becoming ”a major menace to society”.

”Medicine can cure a patient but through religion we can cure society,” said the mufti. He also suggested that awareness programmes target the youth of the country.

The mufti endorsed the use of pamphlets and audio-visuals for educating young people against the dangers of risky and unhealthy lifestyles that create conditions for the rapid spread of the virus.

Normally the distribution of material with explicit references to sex and the kind of risky sexual practices that foster HIV spread would be considered ‘haram’ or forbidden by orthodox followers of the Islamic faith.

Among the Hindu leaders who expressed support for Bishop Samantroy’s initiative was Swami Agnivesh, member of the reformist Arya Samaj Society and well-known social worker and speaker on social issues.

”There can be little doubt that we must do everything possible to stop the spread of HIV but we need to also look at other diseases that are even more rampant in India such as Hepatitis B,” said Swami Agnivesh. ”The fact is far more people die of Hepatitis B in this country than HIV.”

Leaders from the Sikh community which is prominent in the national capital and in neighbouring Punjab said fresh initiatives were needed to raise HIV/AIDS awareness among high-risk groups such as truck drivers many of whom happen to be followers of Sikhism – a religion that demands that its men wear turbans and keep the hair and beards uncut.

”We are concerned that Sikh truck drivers are a major cause in the spread of HIV in the rural areas. Many of them also have sex with prostitutes during their long trips away from the family and bring the virus home to their wives when they return,” said Mohinder Singh, director of the National Institute of Punjab Studies.

Singh said many truck drivers were still unaware of the dangers of unprotected sex and were reluctant to get themselves tested, although he believed that with determined and sustained effort on the part of voluntary agencies and religious leaders they could be won over to adopt less risky lifestyles.

Bishop Samantaroy said although the CNI has been working on AIDS awareness since 1995, much work remained to be done.

”Our aim is to reach each and every individual so that the maximum number of people, especial youth and women, can be saved,” he added.

”When it comes to awareness programmes, the church has been a pioneer but HIV/AIDS is still a taboo subject in this country and is surrounded by fear, denial, hesitation, reluctance and above all a negative attitude,” said Karuna Roy, CNI’s main coordinator for its ‘Teen Educator’s Programme’ which puts emphasis on peer education and covers a large number of schools in northern India.

”If we can teach our children to be open and impart correct knowledge to them, it is possible to turn them into responsible adults who stay away from unhealthy practices which causes the spread of the disease,” she said.

The joint-faith response grew out of the success of the ‘Teen Educator’s Programme’ that has been extended through the Internet and telephone helplines.

According to Rev. Enos Das Pradhan, general secretary of the CNI Synod, the initiative of a joint faith approach makes sense ”in a society which is so ruled by morality and in which religious leaders can play a big role in taking the message of AIDS prevention to the population.”

”Our successful partnership with the government so far makes us a natural link to other faiths and we hope over time all faith based organisations will become part of this initiative,” he said.

In the meantime, the Indian government has already decided to step up the mobilization of its youth, said Oscar Fernandes, convenor of the Parliamentary Forum on HIV/AIDS. ”We want young people to be ambassadors for the cause (of safe sex).”

According to Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss, the focus on youth follows the reckoning that 50 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in India belong to the 15-24 age group and with each passing day nearly 6,000 people were getting affected by the virus.

”It is imperative that young people take on the leadership and spearhead the national campaign,” Ramadoss said.

Past initiatives involving non-government organisations (NGOs) have had limited success. They have also been met with hostility from the public and there were cases where police had arrested volunteers on the grounds of distributing obscene material.

Seven million people in Asia Pacific countries are currently infected with HIV/AIDS, according to U.N. figures. One third are women, and four million of them are in India.

In South Asia, women and girls are most vulnerable. Young women on the subcontinent account for 62 percent of infections in the 15-24 year old age group. In India, 90 percent of HIV-positive women are married and monogamous.

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